Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I have seen the best minds of my generation

There are, in Georgia, plenty of young people with superlative educations and insightful thoughts and probing, eager, ravenous intellects.

These are not the young people in my U.S. History class.

Oh, didn't I mention? I've been somehow suckered into teaching a course on "history" to first-year students at a local university; a task for which (having once exclaimed indignantly at Pub Quiz "what do you mean Hubert Humphrey was never a president?!") I am singularly unqualified.

But it doesn't seem to matter all that much. The class is meant to be in English, the students are at about a 3rd grade reading level in English, and the chapter on World War I includes the following tidbit of historical trivia:
The first American soldiers, called Yankees, or Yanks, arrive in Paris on the Fourth of July, 1917. Looking wonderful in their new uniforms, they parade from the Tomb of the Emperor Napoleon to the Tomb of Lafayette. "Lafayette, we are here!" says the Yankee officer in charge. He says it in French and Paris goes wild. All of France falls in love with the young Americans.

"Students just got all this Soviet propaganda, this absolute nonsense, for their entire education!" steamed the Dean, who is easily the most ferociously anti-Russian, pro-American human I've met this side of Uncle Dan in Decatur, Texas. "I want them to see how much you love your country so that they will love it too!"

"So...you want me to spread American propaganda instead?" I ask innocently.

"Why not?" roars back the dean. Boy pal, have you ever got the wrong gal.

Essentially, I'm teaching English through the medium of history, using a primer published in the U.S. and intended for ESL students. I'm there, see, not so much to spread my revisionist politically correct propaganda, as to let them practice their English with a native speaker. I have high hopes that, by the end of the semester, they'll all be saying "like," like, waaaay more often.

This is a fine thing in itself, and I'm happy to serve the cause of greater English proficiency in my small way. But as long as the class is ostensibly about history, I still feel obligated to put up a fight. Look, I probably shouldn't use this forum to mock my students but a) I'm not exactly up for tenure here; b) believe it or not, I mock gently with affection, because they're pretty dear kids; and c) they don't use the internet; I checked.

With my least-advanced class, we read a chapter on the beginnings of World War I. It goes like this, for your information: the Archduke of Austria-Hungary goes to Serbia. He is shot. Austria-Hungary is angry! They declare war on Serbia. Other countries have agreements with Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and soon all of Europe is fighting.

Okay, class. Let's review what we read. What started WWI?

Blank stares. Eternal, uncomfortable silence. They stare at me with the empty eyes of those who know they will win this face-off.

Alright, let's back up. Where is the Archduke Ferdinand from? Feel free to look back at the text.


No. What happened to the Archduke?

He got killed in Serbia in the war?

No, the war happened after he was killed. Okay, how about this. What did Austria-Hungary do when he was killed?

Blank stares.

Remember, a Serbian has just killed a member of Austria-Hungary's royal family. What do they do?

Blank stares.

What happens next? What starts?

Blank stares.

Okay. True or false, everyone: as a result, Austria-Hungary....invites Serbia to a party?

I felt very Alex Trebek on SNL Celebrity Jeopardy, minus my Sean Connery. At a loss, I just started talking and at some point, when my mind finally caught back up to my mouth, I realized that I was neck-deep in an extravagant retelling of the ever-loving Battle of the Alamo, and there was simply no turning back.

Now I'm coming to class more prepared. My more advanced class is up to the 60s, and so I brought in the text of JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech, along with the audio recording and photographs. It's a pretty simple speech and I delivered what I humbly consider a ravishingly interesting lecture on the Berlin Airlift and the construction of the Wall, and the big serious eyes of my students looked troubled indeed about poor Berlin, families torn asunder, a defended island of freedom on the front lines of the Cold War. Next time is good ol' MLK and his dream.

Other ideas as we forge boldly forward? Multimedia options especially welcome, as is thus far my only pedagogical trick for maintaining interest.


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